How The Grinder Continues the Legacy of Great Metacomedies

Rob Lowe and Fred Savage. Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson and Photo by FOX

The pilot episode of Fox’s The Grinder starts unconventionally, but maybe prophetically: It leads with a series-finale teaser for a show called The Grinder. Eventually, we sort out that we’ve joined the Sanderson family as they’re gathered 'round the TV watching a legal procedural called The Grinder — a show within the show — in which Dean (Rob Lowe) starred for years as a can’t-lose lawyer nicknamed, yes, the Grinder. Having left the legal drama, Dean moves back to Boise, Idaho, where his actual-lawyer brother, Stewart (Fred Savage), lives, confident his years as a TV-show lawyer qualify him to practice law in the real world. It’s a metacomedy through and through.

By nature, metacomedies require time and investment from their audiences to understand — and, more important, enjoy — the layered narrative. Often, this makes them more susceptible to cancellation. Watching The Grinder, you can’t help but think of its cousins: Community, which got canceled repeatedly, or Arrested Development, the patron saint of prematurely canceled shows (though one might argue it also launched our long national reboot nightmare).

The show that comes to mind over and over when I watch The Grinder is Better Off Ted, an ABC show that was canceled after two seasons. Ted doesn’t look like your conventional metacomedy until you start digging through its DNA. It was the rare show that mixed jokes and surrealist elements with biting social commentary, threw it all in the beaker, and came out with a workplace metacomedy.

The pilot for Ted, and many subsequent episodes, begins with a creepily cheery corporate ad for Veridian Dynamics, the giant corporation Ted works for. What they do nobody really seems to know, but the ads that appear throughout the show employ stock footage (cows, smiling people, the sun passing through tree branches) and a soothing female voice reading copy that falls just on this side of winking at us: “Veridian Dynamics: We make everything better. Sometimes.” Ted is relentlessly positive about his work and his co-workers, always certain that “they” — the big bosses, whoever they are — have a good reason for whatever they’re doing. In Better Off Ted, the corporation is almost certainly villainous, and we as the audience know that. But Ted and the whole office exist in a peppy universe parallel to ours, and the disjunction is enough to set us laughing.

That awareness of two universes — ours as the audience, and theirs as the characters — is the strongest mark of a metacomedy, and each show approaches it in a different way. Arrested Development does it by layering the jokes with such absurd density that individual episodes aren’t funny on paper. The show requires an unusual amount of involvement from the viewer to construct the jokes out of references, musical cues, and weird puns that can span several seasons. (The stellar “Save Our Bluths” episode explicitly invoked the cancellation rumblings happening outside the show’s universe.) In Community, Abed persistently breaks the fourth wall and talks about the show as it’s developing, and the show frequently responds to extra-universe criticisms and fan theories. Several times, for instance, it forces a Jeff-Britta relationship, then makes it so uncomfortable that shippers are left howling for relief.

This same trait has been slowly ramping up over The Grinder's first season. In the pilot, while Stewart is trying in vain to get a couple to settle an eviction case, Dean intervenes and proposes some very Grinder-like measures. “I feel like I’m in a Grinder episode right now!” exclaims one character. And importantly — as in Better Off Ted, where cheery elevator music signals setting to us — cues lifted from Dean’s show start playing every time Dean gets into “Grinder” mode. We hear it; the characters, we assume, hear it in their heads. Suddenly Dean and whoever is buying his Grinder act — usually everyone in the room except Stewart and legal associate Claire (Natalie Morales) — is in the other Grinder, one in which it’s totally reasonable for a lawyer to launch a full-scale stakeout investigation for a vandalism case.

When the show returned from Christmas break earlier this month, the writers had clearly caught on to the fact that, like other great metacomedies, they are headed for quick extinction unless people start watching the show. The opening scene in the mid-season premiere has Dean irritatedly reiterating the entire plot of The Grinder up to this point, then remarking, “I’m just saying, it’s bad writing.” The next episode opens with the family in the middle of binge-watching Dean’s show, presumably what the writers hope we’re doing with their own show.

And that’s something The Grinder has over its predecessors: It exists fully in the world of streaming and bingeing. One imagines Arrested Development would have benefited from that luxury during its original 2004–06 run, which virtually doomed the show to failure since you had to start from the beginning to make any sense of it. Both Community and Better Off Ted premiered in 2009, slightly before the age of ubiquitous streaming services.

But The Grinder has been available since it started, and the show is not-so-subtly trying to get us to pick up the cues and start from the beginning. We ought to heed its advice and watch the weird little Fox sitcom before it’s too late and we’re stuck adding it to the list of metacomedies that should have lasted.